Dissonant Notes

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Labour's Love Lost - The Victory Celebration That Turned Into A Wake

Winners aren’t supposed to be this bitter. When the No vote triumphed in the recent referendum regarding Scottish independence, it looked like a vindication for the Scottish Labour Party. As the dust began to settle, however, Labour was suddenly faced with the realisation that 1.6 million people had voted for independence, and many of those people had been die-hard Labour voters just a few weeks before the 18th of September. Worse still, instead of treating the referendum like a cup final, many Yes voters decided that their conversion to a supporter of an independent Scotland was not a passing thing but was now somewhat of an entrenched belief. It turns out that many Labour voters felt a wave of disenchantment at the idea of Labour holding hands with the Conservative Party to protect the Union. Suddenly the policies of the two major British political parties seemed almost interchangeable, give or take some window-dressing. Instead of settling the independence question, it now looked like the referendum had actually created a greater drive for independence. How has Labour dealt with these recalcitrant voters who, contrary to New Labour procedure, refuse to drop their beliefs when faced with a defeat at the ballot box? The answer, as numerous clickbaits promise, may surprise you.

The cheers and laughter that erupted from the mouths of Labour-supporting No voters when the results were announced were gradually replaced by a conceited, bragging defiance that took to taunting Yes voters, reminding them that they had lost. Instead of reaching out and trying to understand why lifelong Labour voters had decided to ignore the party line and vote Yes, the twitter feeds of Labour/No supporters filled up with “We won”, “You lost”, and “zoomers”. Grown men took to reposting the poetry of idealistic young Yes voters in order to snigger and guffaw, and the worst outbursts from Yes voters were passed around as if to signify a moral superiority on the part of No supporters. All the while, however, an emptiness was lurking behind every guffaw as many began to point to a very disturbing truth for Labour: as SNP and Scottish Green membership flourished, Labour’s prospects in the next General Election began to look very grim. Labour’s response? Fingers very firmly in ears and a cry of “Zoomers”. The independence campaign was even referred to as a zombie movement in an article on a Labour website. Labour seems unwilling to understand Yes voters, preferring instead to insult and laugh. As a vote-winning tactic, it seems short-sighted to say the least. When 1.6 million people vote Yes, it stands to reason that Labour will need many of these same people to vote for them in the 2015 General Election if they are to triumph.

Labour’s problem is that, ultimately, it has nothing to brag about. Instead of holding firm to core beliefs, Labour policies in Scotland, and in the UK as a whole, have drifted further and further to the right. The party is incapable of showing itself to be the moral opponent of the Conservative Party precisely because, politically, it is merely the liberal wing of the Conservative Party. Outside of proclaiming “We’re not quite as bad as the Tories”, it’s hard to gauge exactly what the Labour Party stands for, with leader Ed Miliband even engaging in some UKIP-esque rhetoric in a desperate attempt to not appear soft on immigration. Labour ends up wherever the political winds blow, and as such it makes it difficult to discern exactly what the party will do that differs from the Conservatives. The SNP and Yes voters make for a more convenient target in Scotland merely because Labour really are a Unionist party, so their opposition is sincere. When it comes to the Tories, their opposition is only based on a power struggle: Labour would prefer to be in charge as it indicates a superficial level of success for them as a political party. After 18 years out of office, Tony Blair transformed Labour from the eternal party of opposition to the party of government by abandoning everything they stood for, but his Faustian pact with the British right-wing media meant Labour could never again return to their core values and as such they have creeped further to the right ever since. True believers have held on in England merely because the Conservative Party have consistently managed to be more repellant. In Scotland, however, the Conservative Party has been reduced to a whisper, so Labour must demonise the independence voter, failing to recognise that these very people were once proud Labour supporters. Unable to demonise the Tories, and with no core beliefs to point to, Labour have painted themselves into a corner by pointing at Yes voters and saying “Look at those zoomers”. No wonder many Labour supporters are panicking.

Scottish Labour should be riding the crest of a wave right now but, like all of their recent triumphs, their victory has come at a price, the price being their Scottish identity and their Scottish voter base. At the Labour banquet, the spirit of independence lingers like Banquo’s ghost, producing either angry bursts of “You lost” or mocking laughter. Scottish Labour may have won the referendum thanks to the three witches (Cameron, Miliband, and Clegg), but their identity crisis has deepened. Desperately trying to paint themselves as the sensible middle ground and the SNP and independence supporters as half-mad extremists, Labour have nothing to offer but contrast in place of substance. The General Election of 2015 has suddenly taken on seismic proportions, with a Conservative victory possibly destroying the fragile Union between Scotland and England, and the union between the UK and Continental Europe. If Labour loses the General Election in the UK their failure will be complete, leaving them with no choice but to move to the right once again. If Labour loses a substantial number of seats in Scotland, Scottish politics will be irrevocably changed, with only parties that advocate for independence providing any hope of escape from Britain’s right-wing political creep. In this atmosphere, Scottish independence will look even more like a solution to British political chicanery, as opposed to the nationalist extremism which Labour continually tries to paint it as. Labour’s failure to hold its ground in the face of the Conservative’s (and now the UKIP’s) populist right-wing appeals will have devastating effects for the UK in general, and Labour’s Scottish demise will force them to court voters in England’s Conservative heartland to make up the numbers for lost Scottish Labour voters. As victories go, Pyrrhic doesn’t even sum it up. The centre cannot hold, and Labour’s loss will be the SNP’s gain, leaving the rest of the UK looking like a neo-con’s idea of paradise. “We won” is sounding more and more empty as each day goes by.


Just as the finishing touches were being put to this essay, Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont stepped down, a move that took almost nobody by surprise, making it seem like Lamont was the last to know about her upcoming resignation. Lamont left with a parting shot at Labour’s London power-base with the implication being that London would be dictating the actions of the Scottish Labour Party. Opinion polls of late have shown that Labour’s strong lead in the UK has whittled away, sending a shiver through the opposition benches that has failed to find a spine to run up. Miliband appears to have wet his finger and stuck it into the air to see which way the vote-wind blows and as such has pulled rank on Scottish Labour in an effort to ensure a General Election victory in 2015. Time will tell if this is a wise move but all of the signs appear to be pointing to a disaster for Labour in Scotland in 2015.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Life After No - Removing Negativity And Staying Self-Critical In Post-Referendum Scotland

As the referendum results from Scotland’s thirty two council areas began to trickle out in the early hours of Friday the 19th of September it soon became clear that a Yes vote was not on the cards. Other than the large victory for Yes in Dundee, it was a rather depressing night for Yes supporters and, by the time Glasgow announced its support for Yes, it was apparent that even this victory would not be enough. Scotland had voted No to independence. Among many Yes supporters the first reaction was anger and/or despair which was an understandable reaction given the soaring optimism and idealism of the many people who supported Yes. As the days pass, though, the anger must subside and be replaced by a sense of political purpose as many wonder what the next wave of Scottish politics will look like. In light of some of the reactions that have been witnessed, it will be be necessary to remove a few things from the table. Let’s start with the most obvious: respect the democratic wishes of the people of Scotland and accept the result.

Scotland voted No to independence. This fact is perhaps a difficult one for many to accept but it is a fact nonetheless. The next stage is perhaps more important and one that many will have even more difficulty doing. That next stage is giving up on the idea of another referendum any time soon. There will not be another referendum in a year, or two years, or five years. There will not. Will there be one at some distant point in the future? Perhaps, but at this stage we need to show that we respect the democratic process when we lose, otherwise any future victories will lack validity. The point of democracy is that those who win should have a chance to see what their choices look like. Those who voted No did so for a multitude of reasons and it is important that we honour their choices. Many people in Scotland felt exhausted as the referendum approached due to after arguing with friends and family for months. To ask them to do so again in two years would be a betrayal. If Labour and/or the Conservatives fail to keep the promises they made, then by all means engage with other Scottish voters but avoid any “I told you so” utterances. A democratic decision is one made by all of us.

A (disputed) poll came out after the referendum which suggested that the largest and most important grouping of No voters were aged 65 and over. Putting aside any arguments regarding the validity of the poll, the reactions to this information was at times a little disturbing. Everybody who supported independence knew that there were risks involved. To turn around angrily and denounce those who feared what the last years of their lives would look like in Scotland was irresponsible and downright shameful. While many Scots probably voted to stay in the Union simply because that is what they preferred, it is not unreasonable to think that many people were scared. The moment any movement points an accusing finger at the elderly simply for making a democratic choice to stay with the status quo is the moment when anger and confusion have drastically clouded judgement. Leave the elderly of Scotland alone.

Now comes the most difficult issue: the notion of the 45. This number was chosen because 45% of the people who cast a vote in the referendum voted for independence, and because of the historical connotations of the forty-five, the name for the Jacobite uprising of 1745. First off, the Jacobites and the Stuarts supported everything the independence movement is against . It was a Stuart monarch who initiated the Union of the Crowns, a Stuart monarch who began the suppression of Gaelic, and a Stuart monarch who oversaw the Act of Union. The Jacobites fought to reinstate the Stuart line and put on the throne a despotic monarch who merely had a historical connection with Scotland (Jacobitism was also popular in Catholic Ireland, even though it was a Stuart monarch who began the plantation of Ulster). The Stuarts, from James VI onwards, had no great love of Scotland and moved their power base to London at the first opportunity. Had the forty-five been successful, the Stuarts would have undoubtedly broken their promises to Scotland, and London would have been their power base once again. When the Act of Union occurred, there were riots on the streets of Scotland but, when it came to the Jacobite uprisings, many Scots supported the Union and the imported Hanoverian line merely due to their dislike of the Stuart line, while the British government used the uprisings as an excuse to brutalise and anglicise large parts of Scotland. The Jacobites managed to utilise a lot of anti-Unionist sentiment, despite the actions of the Stuarts being essential to the Union’s existence and, in doing so, tarnished and destroyed any hopes of a popular anti-Unionist political movement. The Jacobite uprisings were a monarchical power struggle disguised (and still at times portrayed) as a last bid for national autonomy and as such any connections with them should be avoided.

The other problem with the 45 is its exclusivity. In the immediate aftermath of the result, proclaiming yourself to be a Yes supporter felt like a point of pride in the face of defeat. Yet for this proclamation to coalesce into a solid political movement is to invite future defeats. If a future referendum happens, then more people need to vote Yes. Nobody wants to join an old club where the members have war wounds and medals on display. It surely does not need pointing out that a political movement with independence as one of its main goals must have an open door policy where past actions will not be seen as wrong. Yes supporters should feel proud of their actions, but finger-pointing and demonising will accomplish nothing other than running the risk of making the next referendum result look like the ‘15 instead of the ‘45.

One of the most self-defeating trends which has emerged in post-referendum Scotland is the paranoid attitude towards the BBC and the media in general. A free press means that the press are free to print whatever they want, even if it favours the status quo. Once we get into the mindset that a pro-independence article or report is fair-minded and a critical one is biased we lose perspective. A lot of people became Yes supporters during the referendum campaign, so Yes supporters were involved in an uphill struggle from day one. It doesn’t seem too far-fetched to imagine that the majority who voted against independence were in fact merely being represented by well-established media outlets who had a vested interest in remaining in the Union. Is that biased? Perhaps. Is it legal? Absolutely. Yes supporters need to avoid sinking into a conspiracy mindset that demands a progressive version of Fox News for Scotland. The problem with Fox News isn’t that it is Republican. The problem is that it tells its viewers over and over again that their network is the only fair and balanced one and, in doing so, allows their viewers to dismiss all other viewpoints that challenge their own. Yes supporters must remain open-minded and self-critical if they hope to increase their numbers.

As well as hostility to the press, Yes supporters need to stop all talk of boycotting businesses who supported the No campaign. Nobody should be punished for supporting a legal democratic option. A small but loud minority of Yes supporters are using words like traitor and talking of boycotts and revenge, and it is rather frightening. Other Yes supporters need to challenge and shut-down this kind of talk. The best aspect of the Yes campaign was its idealistic zeal and progressive attitude. The voices which exude paranoia and anger must not in any way come to represent the Yes campaign (even if they are Jim Sillars) or the whole movement will descend into the ugly nationalism that Yes was never about in the first place.

Yes supporters also need to stop referring to No voters as mugs who were duped. It creates an unrealistic perspective of absolute clarity when it comes to the referendum. Nobody knows what a Yes Scotland would truly have looked like and you can bet there would have been many setbacks and bumps in the road. Ultimately there was an element of risk involved, and many people simply did not want to take that risk. That was a democratic option. Let’s weed out the paranoia, the exclusivity, the anger at the result, the media conspiracy theories (and let’s not even get started on the ridiculous voter fraud claims), the finger-pointing, and the name-calling. For a comfortable victory in the future, Yes would need a 10% swing. None of the behaviours described above will help bring about that swing. In fact they will alienate many people. Oh and, for God’s sake, leave J.K. Rowling alone. So, what exactly can Yes supporters do?

To start with, instead of wondering what the other side did to win, we should ask ourselves what Yes did to lose. How exactly could Yes have convinced that extra 10% of voters to claim a unanimous victory? The one issue which I think left Yes supporters most open to attack and which produced the most anxiety in undecided voters was the issue of the Scottish currency. To put it bluntly, Alex Salmond made a huge blunder by refusing point-blank to discuss a plan B for Scotland’s currency. Many Yes supporters, myself included, went to great lengths to emphasise that the referendum was not about Alex Salmond and the SNP. This remains true to this day, yet it was Alex Salmond and the SNP who were seen as the voice of the Yes movement and, as such, Salmond’s steadfast refusal to engage with voters in regards to Scottish currency proved disastrous. When every party leader of every major British political party tells you that there will not be a currency union, turning around and saying “Yes there will” does not look like a vote winner. With currency uncertain, Scottish voters were being asked to take a gamble. It is no longer "our" pound if we leave the UK and it is a mistake to make demands of the very entity you wish to break away from, especially if those demands lessen the very notion of independence. Never mind a Plan B, there should have been a Plan C and a Plan D. Yes supporters were left giving impromptu answers to interested parties when asked about Scottish currency, knowing full well that these were answers not given by the main proponent of independence. Even if there had been a currency union, surely it would not have been permanent. An independent country needs a sovereign currency. Yet Salmond and the SNP continually stated that there would be a currency union. End of story. The hammering that Salmond took over this was entirely appropriate. For a man who seems to have spent his entire life preparing for a referendum, Salmond looked woefully unprepared. The idea that a team of economists could have engaged fully with Scottish voters telling them exactly what their options were does not seem to have occurred to Salmond. To say that the currency issue lost the referendum for Yes might be an overstatement, but a clearer economic policy instead of one which was deemed null and void by British political parties (and which compromised Scotland’s independence) would have at least made the numbers closer to 50-50.

The issue of unpreparedness also loomed large during the campaign. It felt like the SNP thought that their majority in Holyrood might not come again so the referendum took on a ‘now or never’ feel. Looked at from this perspective, the referendum itself felt like it came too early. Granted, it was perhaps the referendum itself that forced people to solidify their positions in regards to an independent Scotland, yet there is no escaping the feeling that not enough work was done by the SNP to prepare Scottish voters for the consequences of the referendum. It was only in the final few weeks of the campaign that things took a more serious turn, as Yes supporters felt for the first time that the vote might go their way. The most positive aspect of the referendum was that it politicised thousands of Scottish voters who had hitherto felt disempowered by the British political system. The tragedy is it took the referendum to do it, and when the No vote happened many were left wondering what to do next. It was the referendum, not the SNP, which empowered people.

The thousands of people now joining the SNP need to demand more currency options from their leadership, as well as making sure that the SNP challenges the most destructive independence supporters who seem to want independence for its own sake without thinking through the consequences. The idea that independence would get rid of the Tories for good is a dangerous one, considering that the Conservatives are not unique to England and that an independent Scotland could easily see a resurgence of Conservatism. I fear that the multitude of voices which emerged during the referendum campaign will be tamed and muted by any political parties they choose to join in the name of the greater good, that greater good being independence. Questions need to be asked not only about currency, but about whether independent Scotland would try to create a corporate tax haven, thereby undermining the idea of a progressive, caring Scotland which cares for its citizens first.

The explosion of voices which occurred as a result of the referendum was truly inspiring. The fact that many of us backed Yes without knowing exactly what an independent Scotland would look like was more an act of trust in the Scottish people than Alex Salmond. For those of us who were troubled by some unanswered questions, now is the time to have them answered properly. If a referendum happens at some future date, then Yes supporters can hopefully be ready with more definitive answers. The people of Scotland voted No to independence and as much as many of us would like to point to media bias or declare the Scottish populace mugs, the honest thing to do would be to look to see how the Yes campaign could have won in identical circumstances. There were a lot of uncertainties about independent Scotland and as such we must admit that many people voted No for legitimate reasons. Our job now is to be self-critical and in doing so we can find the weakest aspects of the Yes campaign, thereby making sure that they will be eradicated. Pointing the finger elsewhere is the worst way to improve. It will be a long time till there’s another referendum. Let’s all make sure we are truly ready.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Final Thoughts on the Scottish Independence Referendum

Soon enough the most important vote in the history of the United Kingdom will have taken place. As a Yes supporter I would like to make myself clear on a few subjects. Many people I know and love will be voting No and my feelings for them will be unaffected. I do not consider No voters to be less Scottish, or to be traitors, or to be anything other than concerned for the future of Scotland. I may disagree with No voters, in fact I may profoundly disagree on various points, but as a believer in an open society, which protects and encourages vigorous debate and free speech, I cherish a nation which allows for all tolerant opinions (as such I found Jim Sillars' 'day of reckoning' comments to be shameful). As many have been at pains to point out, the Scottish Referendum has not only transformed Scottish politics but British politics as a whole in the sense that, for a very small period of time, London has not been the centre of gravity for the United Kingdom. This has been good for everybody in the UK, though I fear that many career politicians in Westminster see this as a crises to get through rather than a long term issue that requires a complete rethink in terms of UK politics.

Much has been made, especially among No voters, of the referendum tearing Scotland apart. That's not how I see the emergence of political debate that has only occasionally reached the level of egg-throwing and street arguing. Ultimately, a country where residents disagree politically is the essence of democracy. If Scotland votes Yes, then we need the No voters to be skeptical and loud, to ensure that hope and optimism don't allow the populace to be blindsided by bad decision making. If Scotland votes No then Yes voters can rightfully expect more powers for the Scottish Parliament, while also serving as a restless watchdog of Westminster as it continues to have a say in Scottish political decisions. The fact that things seem so finely balanced is merely a testament to the two options of the referendum. If Scotland votes Yes it will again become a country with a multitude of political opinions, including Scottish Conservatives. In fact an independent Scotland is the only place where Conservatism is likely to thrive north of the border. In an independent Scotland the SNP will no longer exist as an independent country does not need a nationalist party. I expect most SNP members to jump ship to other parties and for the SNP to change its name and reemerge as a left-of-centre Scottish political party that will try to challenge the new Scottish Labour Party for left leaning voters. If Scotland votes No the Conservatives will continue to struggle, Labour will go into free-fall, and the SNP will remain an active voice as many Scottish voters (even No voters) struggle to find a mainstream party that best matches their politics. 

It remains a kind of political miracle that the referendum polls are so close. Two years ago the No vote seemed unassailable. Given that every major British political party, every major British newspaper, every major bank, and every major corporation supports the No campaign, it is a testament to both the Yes campaign's organising and the sheer disaffection with Westminster among Scottish voters that Yes seems within a whisker of succeeding. Just how out of touch with Scottish political culture is the entrenched British establishment? The sense of panic coming from the elite when one poll put the Yes vote ahead was astonishing. Even though 30% of the Scottish electorate when polled have regularly indicated that they would like an end to the Union, this was apparently nothing to worry about. Bear in mind that the Conservative Party has not achieved 30% of the Scottish vote in over 30 years, yet there's been a Conservative Prime Minister in Downing Street overseeing the most important Scottish political decisions for 17 of those years. As the polls crept higher the sense of business-as-usual was overwhelming. What does it tell you about the British ruling class when they only realise two weeks before a vote that something important might be at stake? 

I truly hope for an independent Scotland because I object to a progressive Scotland being dragged down a neo-liberal path by a party who can barely get enough votes to return one Scottish MP to the House of Commons (or by a party who, while still popular in Scotland, have abandoned all their principles to stay relevant in southern England). I think the politics of Westminster has drifted drastically from any sense of a middle-ground and now exists to provide America with a powerful voice in Europe, while still cloaking its beliefs in a Union Jack and a respectful bow to the Queen. I object to Scotland being referred to as a democratic nation when UK General Election results show that it is neither. I have more reasons than this for supporting Yes (which can be found here and here), but at this point I merely wish to express how invigorating the whole referendum campaign has been. True, there are Yes voters who revel in the worst kind of nationalistic rabble-rousing, just as there are No voters whose main motivation has been sectarian hatred and quasi-fascist British pride, yet these have ultimately been the minority. Scottish politics has been transformed and the level of passion and debate on both sides has been inspiring. I feel that the political culture of the UK will never be the same again, no matter which way Scotland votes. Things are too close and people are too involved to simply fade away into the background on the 19th. Scotland has re-awoken and as such the referendum can only be viewed as a success. Let us hope that it is the beginning of a sense of political involvement for all people living in the British Isles. I've never been prouder to be Scottish.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Realpop – An Introduction

What is Realpop? Realpop is an approach to music criticism which accepts as reality the corporate and capitalist mechanisms which control and manipulate pop music. It imposes limits in terms of what is acceptable and reasonable discussion, and delegitimises anything which falls outside the limits of acceptability. In order to be successful, Realpop has to be internalised to the point where those who adhere to the principles of Realpop do so without knowledge of their actions. They would swear under duress that no such philosophy exists and even if it did they are not one of its adherents. This is vital, as only those who deny its existence can vehemently defend its principles without fear of conforming to an ideology. The main aspects of Realpop which need to be understood are who its advocates are and what tools they will use to deligitimise their opponents. Both of these aspects will now be made clear.

Realpop – Its Advocates
Those who espouse the fundamental principles of Realpop will more often than not fit a very specific category. They will be young (as their careers begin), highly educated and left-wing. Youth speaks for itself, inasmuch as the young are typically eager to find a grounding through which their personalities can unfold. Those with a higher education will have internalised the principles of the “limits of acceptability”: the limits of acceptable speech, the limits of acceptable opinion. In higher education, success depends on internalising these limits. Left-wing thinkers are essential as the “boots on the ground” soldiers of Realpop (those of the right-wing persuasion will be the ones making money from the process). They must internalise the principles of Realpop to the point where right-wing dogmas become the cornerstone of left-wing thinking. This is done by adding an ideological tinge to the idea of pop.

Pop music represents the tastes of “the masses”. The general public must be thought of as the proles, the exploited masses struggling to make ends meet. As far as the general public and their tastes are concerned, the enemy is not some corporate CEO but the archetypal snobbish critic who dismisses the superficiality of pop and therefore the preoccupations of everyday working people. In this context the Realpop writer is a defender of the masses in the acceptable left-wing tradition. With a mere flick of the switch, the left-wing firebrand becomes a defender of market principles and does so without believing themselves to be compromised in any way. Quite the opposite. Realpop writers are Old Labour in thought but New Labour in deed.

Realpop – Its Application
Once the corporate reality of Realpop is internalised, then any criticism of pop which includes a critique of the corporate nature of pop music can be dismissed as an asinine act of naivety and obviousness. The corporate reality is so ubiquitous that to point it out is unnecessary. This presents an unarguable limit on the ability to critique the corporate structure of pop. Given that Realpop writers are left-wing, they are able to dismiss critiques of the structure of corporate pop with relish, and with more bite than any right-wing writer could summon up. This is because the left-wing writers view themselves as principled, educated individuals who have merely accepted the reality of our current situation. They are well read in Marx, in post-structuralism, in Žižek. Nobody need point out the capitalist nature of pop to them. Realpop writers alone will decide when it is acceptable to use political theories to attack the corporate agenda behind pop music. That time is never.

Even though pop music has scored countless cultural victories and has billions of dollars to market and defend it, the image of the snobbish critic must hang over proceedings and colour how people interpret attacks on pop music. The Realpop writer will employ terms such as ‘easy target’ when delegitimising critiques of pop music as pop must always be viewed as the underdog. The angry voice which questions the mechanics of pop will be metamorphosised into the disapproving cry of the out-of-touch, elitist professor who refuses to see value in pop music, or they will be accused of shooting fish in a barrel, taking obvious, uncontroversial stances against music that is enjoyed by “the masses”. Those who condemn pop become the objectionable voice of the establishment, a reactionary, an enemy of the people, safe in their ivory tower but cut off from the tastes and opinions of real working men and women.

The fact that Realpop writers are highly educated here becomes an extra benefit. They face pop music detractors with a feeling of knowledgeable pride. These people who dare to criticise pop don’t know that it is the Realpop writers who define the terms of the debate. Realpop writers will flaunt their higher education in the defence of pop, thereby showing enemies that they have one foot in the academy and the other on the street. They will shame the ignorance of those who slander pop, they will out-namedrop the snobbish critic, and they will paint all dissenters as orthodox and ordinary. Alternately, they will attack the obsequious and immature mind of the student, labelling ideological attacks on pop music to be “sixth form” in nature. This is not the time for your angry, half-thought-out political rhetoric. The privileged and classist nature of higher education can always be invoked to score ideological points and derail potential criticisms, but the corporate reality of pop must remain unmentionable. This is pop music, the music of the masses. The left-wing ideologue also becomes class enemy.

The Realpop writer knows when to employ the right kind of smear. By ignoring the content of all attacks on the pop establishment and instead carefully shuffling them into boxes marked “sexist”, “reactionary”, “sixth form”, “snob”, or “hipster” the Realpop critic retains the moral high ground and remains the reasonable voice of the people. All attacks become laughable and predictable. Endorsement of pop remains refreshing and unexpected. If too much anger is shown by a pop detractor they will be portrayed as wildly hysterical and unreasonable. It is, after all, only pop music. Even though the images of pop culture dominate our lives and fuel exploitative industries that reinforce stereotypes of race, class, gender, and sexuality, these are but the realities that the Realpop writer knows they must overlook. Compared to the calm, nuanced reasonableness of the Realpop writer, outbursts of anger, frustration, and disappointment seem furiously out of proportion. It’s only pop music, and nothing is at stake. A pop song isn’t going to change the world. The soothing voice of the educated, left-wing, concerned Realpop writer tells us to simply accept and endorse.

The Realpop writer must perform with limited interference or censorship. They must internalise the principles of Realpop so that their writing appears fresh and enthusiastic, without the strain of fabricated zeal that renders propaganda inept. The Realpop writer will endorse or they will not exist. On other topics and in other writings they may reveal their true political leanings but corporate pop must remain off-limits. Realpop writers will not be paid very well (they are the left-wing footsoldiers not the right-wing capitalists) but they will be given free drinks, they will mingle with the stars, they will wander the streets of London with the knowing look of the insider, the tastemaker, the cultural ambassador. They will live with the knowledge that an intern would gladly write their articles for free to get a foot in the door, so they must continuously reaffirm the Realpop agenda if they are to secure that book deal which they dream of. No censorship, no arm twisting, just a willingness to be accommodating and reasonable.

On the surface, it may seem like Realpop depoliticises the mechanics of pop, but this is patently untrue. Realpop has politicised the mechanics of pop so that they may be defended and endorsed from a left-wing perspective. Realpop as an approach was never invented, it emerged from the trauma of left-wing capitulation to market forces. It was birthed by the same type of people who now endorse it. In pop, as in politics, reality should be our guiding principle. Realpop defines reality by what it endorses, and by what it excludes, and one does not make the choice as to whether one is in or out. Choice implies cynical acceptance. The Realpop writer believes every word they write. This is the single most important aspect of Realpop. It succeeds because those who endorse it are enthusiastic and sincere. Opponents seem cynical, egotistical, and unreasonable by comparison. Censorship becomes obsolete under the guiding principles of Realpop. The Realpop writer remains ever loyal to the people, knowing that opponents of the capitalist mechanisms of pop are merely class enemies in disguise. The tastes of the masses must be elevated to the level of dogma. Realpop still has work to do.

(This article originally appeared on Collapse Board)

Monday, August 25, 2014

Non-Anniversary Writing - 'Ceremony' by New Order

What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.

'The Devil’s Backbone'

So the last shall be first, and the first last.

KJV, Matthew 20:16

Like the legend of the phoenix. All ends with beginnings.

Daft Punk - 'Get Lucky'

‘Ceremony’ by New Order is an enigma turned into sound. Like New Order’s monolithic slab of dance angst ‘Blue Monday’, it took several recordings before the definitive version emerged but, unlike ‘Blue Monday’, it was always the same song being recorded and not old songs mutating into something new (Both ‘Everything’s Gone Green’ and ‘586’ are essentially ‘Blue Monday’ practice runs). Recorded first by Joy Division and then twice by New Order, it is the second New Order version which remains the most familiar and the one that plays in our heads when we think of the song.

Why is ‘Ceremony’ an enigma? It is both a Joy Division and a New Order song. It is the last words of one group and the first of another. It is both words from beyond the grave and the first noises emerging from a newborn. It is death and rebirth. Never has a song so perfectly played into mythological archetypes yet defied categorisation completely. It sits uneasily with the rest of New Order’s catalogue, yet tacked onto the end of Joy Division’s it would seem out of place. ‘Ceremony’ exists solely on its own terms and in its own self-created context.

The lyrics are written by Ian Curtis which means they qualify as the best set of lyrics in a New Order song. This is not to suggest that Ian Curtis was a flawless poet given that many of his early lyrics fall flat and, in retrospect, reek of juvenalia. Yet he continued to refine and improve and the words to ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ are startlingly mature and world-weary for a 23 year old, leaving behind the abstract existentialism of Unknown Pleasures to paint an earthbound portrait of domestic unhappiness. The words to ‘Ceremony’ are perhaps an unrevisable work in progress and an unalterable point in time, nonetheless they speak of mystery and unbearable visions. The enigma of the lyrics matches the conditions through which the song emerged. The inscrutable is often mistaken for depth but, in the case of ‘Ceremony’, it is nigh on impossible to dismiss the words as throwaway. Their inscrutability occasionally gives way to discernable emotions that tease the listener into thinking that some solution to the enigma might be found. For all that, the song remains stubbornly undecipherable. This is understandable given that they are among the last remnants of speech from a man who could not bear the weight of his own existence.

While temporarily staying with Bernard Sumner, Ian Curtis engaged in some past-life regression therapy with Bernard as his guide. A recording exists of Curtis talking in a detached voice about reading a law book and being aged 28, an age which Curtis never came close to. With ‘Ceremony’, the roles are reversed and Sumner is singing words from a past-life with Curtis as his guide. It is left to Sumner to utter these lyrics from beyond the grave, the same lyrics that will introduce New Order to the world. The voice of Ian Curtis was a pitch black cry of desperation. In contrast, the voice of Bernard Sumner has a lightness of tone and an unstable pitch which lends the words of Ian Curtis a measure of humanity often lost in the music of Joy Division. The blank existential chasm which opened up whenever Curtis sang meant that the emotions being expressed often struggled to escape the black hole at the heart of each song. On ‘Ceremony’, Sumner’s delivery make the words seem like both an invitation and a question mark, as opposed to a full stop. As his quivering inflection lets out the words “Heaven knows it’s got to be this time” it lends the song a tearful quality as Sumner’s frail voice enables underground reservoirs of emotion to seep out through the cracks.

‘Ceremony’ is old/new, dead/alive, first/last. It is a kind of phantom caught between worlds, a frozen moment in time that represents neither the music of Joy Division nor New Order. It exists in an artistic shadow-realm that was captured on tape and as such can be repeated at the listener’s pleasure. ‘Ceremony’ retains the same intense musical simplicity that was the hallmark of Joy Division. Nothing more than two chords, the song is held together by the most basic of guitar lines married to a sparse drum sound, and the song peaks in ferocity as a rhythm guitar frenetically slashes away at those same two chords. Something has changed, however, and as such it feels and sounds different from any Joy Division song ever recorded. As for New Order, their music would soon change to embrace electronic music and dance culture. For a while Sumner attempted to emulate the lyrics of Curtis by writing words that implied something dark and ominous while struggling to make sense. He eventually settled in as a chronicler of domestic irritation and contentedness, shedding the existential doom to emerge as the everyman Wallace Shawn of New Order, in stark contrast to Ian Curtis’s spiritually tortured Andre Gregory. As such, ‘Ceremony’ stands alone, inhabiting a barely discernible borderland that could only have been created by events and circumstances beyond the control of the music-makers. It is the sound of wheels turning endlessly, turning forever towards that one moment in time. A moment that was both an end and a beginning. It served its purpose as an escape route into the future and, from the wreckage of tragedy, New Order constructed something that comes close to perfection. New Order escaped, but ‘Ceremony’ reminds us what they escaped from. It has kept its power, its mystery, and its vitality. Few moments in the history of modern music vibrate with such intensity. Listen again, the wheels are still turning.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

‘Blurred Lines’ and the Banality of Male Sexuality

I’m going to be honest here, I initially tried to ignore the criticisms of ‘Blurred Lines’. After ‘Get Lucky’ I was hungry for another pop smash and ‘Blurred Lines’ seemed to fit the bill. Then I picked up on the rumblings of discontent. According to one commentator the song was “kind of rapey” and played around with ideas of consent. After a few listens I couldn’t deny the song’s inherent creepiness, yet it seemed to me that deciding whether or not the song was an endorsement of rape (I don’t think it is) was not the only thing up for discussion. As far as I can see, the song seems to revel in some very dubious and also thoroughly predictable elements of male sexuality, and worst of all it does so with an unshakable sense of self-assurance.

Some people may question why anyone would be upset in the first place. Didn’t Odd Future build their career with songs about rape? Yes, but there’s a vital difference. Odd Future knew they were courting controversy. It was part of their appeal. Same with an artist like G.G. Allin. His intent was to shock. Robin Thicke seemed totally unprepared for any criticisms of ‘Blurred Lines’. It didn’t even occur to him that anybody would be upset. He genuinely believes the song is sexy. Say what you will about someone like Eazy-E but I’m betting he didn’t pen ‘Nutz On Ya Chin’ because he thought it would bring a little romance to the evening. Part of the problem with ‘Blurred Lines’ is that it unquestioningly accepts its own worldview. It doesn’t think it’s controversial. The song overflows with the confidence of the straight male who is perfectly secure with his place in the world. Yet in doing so it betrays a narrow-minded, regressive, and unimaginative idea of human sexuality.

First off, the lyrics are not sexy. Not in any way, shape, or form. Thicke’s idea of sexiness is getting “blasted” and smoking some weed. We already have a problem. Here is a song that thinks it’s ‘Kiss’ by Prince but is in fact ‘Why Don’t We Get Drunk’ by Jimmy Buffett. Why exactly does Thicke want his lady friend to get wasted? So she can lose her inhibitions. So she can let go of the “good girl” that stops her from truly enjoying sex and tap into her inner animal. So basically Robin Thicke’s sexy, playful song is about taking a “good girl”, getting her drunk/high, and then fucking her. No mention of the pleasures she will receive. Nothing about 23 positions in a one night stand. She’ll be wasted. She’ll have sex. One thing’s for sure, Robin Thicke knows she wants it. Is it rape? Perhaps not, but it certainly doesn’t sound like seduction. It sounds like bad sex. It sounds like a man getting off on the idea that a “good girl” finds him attractive. It sounds like a man with some very clichéd views about what women, and men, want from any given sexual encounter.

Why exactly does he want a “good girl” anyway? What is a “good girl”? This aspect of the song seems to tap into one of the most overused and objectionable ideas about female sexuality. A woman is either a virgin or a whore. A good girl or a bad girl. Many men want good girls because it gives them a feeling of conquest and power and because the idea of a mature, sexually experienced woman terrifies them. ‘Blurred Lines’ revels in the idea of the male liberator who frees the frigid woman by getting her wasted and fucking her. Deep down, that’s all she needed. For some reason many men approach the idea of female sexuality with the one thought that women are too uptight. They need to let their hair down. They need to let themselves enjoy things. Things like sex. The problem can’t lie with the man or his limited technique. If the woman would just relax she would enjoy a man taking charge and giving her what she needs. The man knows that ultimately she wants it.

We are at the point where (I hope) rape is seen as repugnant by the majority of men and the idea that, deep down, women desire to be raped is met with real disgust. Yet the idea that a straight woman desires a masculine man to take control and simply give her a good, hard seeing to is one which continues to have credibility. Even though Morrissey claimed that he spent his teenage years in the feminist section of his local library he still felt the need to include the line, “It took a tattooed boy from Birkenhead, to really, really open her eyes” in The Smiths’ song ‘What She Said’. It passes for wisdom and insight to insinuate that the conflicted female merely wishes to give up control and be used as an instrument for male sexual satisfaction. Only through female surrender can either party achieve true fulfillment.

Underneath the cocksure strut of the masculine straight male, however, there lies fear. Repeating “I know you want it” over and over sounds more like something to make the man feel better than the woman. It gives the man confidence in his sexuality. The pornography industry is built on the idea of unlimited male sexual power and its appeal lies in its portrayal of the man being the one who, in the majority of cases, holds the power in sexual matters. The reason Thicke, and a large percentage of men, hate these “blurred lines” is because they yearn for simplicity and uncomplicated sexual relations. Can’t we stop with the discussions about gender roles, gender confusion, gender as a societal construct, and just let a man do his thing? Feminism has by now sown so many seeds of doubt into the male mind in regards to WHAT WOMEN WANT that for many the solution is to get back to basics and just revel in antiquated ideas about sexuality and ‘natural’ male superiority.

The fact that anyone still entertains any kind of notion about ‘what women want deep down’ is an embarrassment. Some men get off on the idea of being cheated on. Does anyone think that’s what all men want deep down? Some men get off on wearing nappies. Some men get off on being humiliated by a whip-wielding dominatrix. Yet only women’s sexuality is ever brought back to the same basic idea: women are uptight and when all is said and done they want a man to be the boss in the bedroom.

Is ‘Blurred Lines’ about rape? No. What it’s really about is how banal mainstream male sexuality is. No sensuality. No femininity. No wit. (The song’s only real attempt at humour is the line “What rhymes with hug me?”. Oh, I don’t know… drug me?). Just boring, vacuous strutting. Get drunk and have sex. Although inspired by Marvin Gaye, it contains none of his tortured sexual pleading or promises of physical pleasure. It merely says “Let me fuck you, I know you want it”. It’s not cheeky; it’s just pathetic.

Honestly, I love blurred lines. Human beings are complex, inscrutable creatures, and that complexity is about the only thing that makes life interesting. There seem to be constant complaints about the modern world and how we address issues like gender, identity, sexuality, race, and ethnicity. Some want to run from this, yearning for a simpler time when any kind of deviation from the norm was suppressed and brushed under the carpet. Yet, for those who rejoice in expressions of freedom and the enhancement of individuality, these modern times are a period of great unfolding. The straight white male stranglehold on the Western narrative grows weaker every day. It’s sad that people still have to explain to the Robin Thickes of the world exactly why ‘Blurred Lines’ represents such a problem. Despite its overwhelming success, Thicke seems resentful that the moronic, witless, blundering worldview of ‘Blurred Lines’ should even be questioned. I will say this: if your idea of a good time is getting a woman blasted and tearing her ass in two, then do everyone a favour and stay home tonight.

I confess that every time ‘Blurred Lines’ comes on the radio, I stay on that station. I find the music to be unbearably catchy. On the surface it feels like a fun song. The music and melody have an undeniable pop appeal that can almost make me forget the words. Almost. Yes, I realise there’s an irony in the fact that, despite my criticisms, I still enjoy it on some level. Perhaps the greater lesson here is that if Thicke wasn’t such a dullard, if he had shown a bit more wit and intelligence, then I could have enjoyed the song unconditionally. Every time the song ends I feel like there’s been a missed opportunity, that the whole experience could have been so much better. Listening to the lyrics, I’m sure this is something Robin Thicke is more than used to hearing.

(This article originally appeared on Collapse Board)

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Beck – Song Reader (Faber/McSweeney’s) (Review)

Before this review begins in earnest, I must warn the reader that the writing is not, and does not attempt to be, unbiased. Beck bothers me.

It’s not just that he uses music from African-American sources to provoke laughter yet raids every white singer-songwriter cliché when he wants to get serious. No, it’s more than that. From the beginning, he has more often than not won approval for being some kind of cultural barometer, a sign-of-the-times, this-is-where-we’re-at artist that allowed alternative fans to enjoy ‘modern’ music while also feeling superior to it. This is no place to dwell on Beck’s overall shortcomings, though. Today I must narrow my gaze and focus on his most recent endeavor.

Beck’s latest release is Song Reader, a book of sheet music. When is the actual album coming out I hear you cry? Hold on to your hats, dear reader, and prepare yourself for a bombshell. There is no ‘album’. This is it. Twenty songs of sheet music. No recorded music, just the musical blueprint. This release has provoked much excitement, and generated massive amounts of press interest, due to its unorthodox nature. What was Beck thinking? What’s your opinion of it? With most modern marketing campaigns we are almost forced to have an opinion. To cite one example, many people probably just wanted to shrug at the idea of Radiohead releasing an album free but as internet chatter went into overload many of us felt the need to contribute. Even if it was just to say that we felt like shrugging. In this instance I do have an opinion on Song Reader. I think it’s bullshit.

First off, there’s nothing interesting about releasing sheet music, even in this day and age. It happens all the time. The reason people are interested is because it’s Beck. The concept tickles their fancy. Throw in the fact that it is being released as a limited run via McSweeney’s, that maker of readymade collectibles for the discerning indie fan, and you can practically see the pools of saliva forming all over America. And that’s the problem. Most copies of Song Reader will undoubtedly remain unopened. It will sit proudly on a shelf as a sign of excellent taste and, as available copies double then triple in price on the internet, the various owners can congratulate themselves on the fact that they placed a bet on a sure thing.

Next, Beck is a terrible songwriter. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying he doesn’t have any good songs. What I am saying is that his songs rely more on how they were recorded than anything inherently musical. I have no problem with the studio being part of the writing process. I embrace it wholeheartedly. I don’t think songs have an idealised Platonic form that naturally comes out in the studio. I think the craft of the song matters, but so does how it was recorded, and so does the studio performance. Stripped of their performance aspect, Beck songs are sorry affairs. Lyrically, melodically, and harmonically they are uninteresting. Beck selling sheet music is like McDonald’s selling a recipe book. “Hey, we’re not going to sell you the Super-Ultra-Mega Big Mac, but you can buy our recipe book and make your own version.” Those recipes might even look complex on paper, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t consuming garbage.

There’s also a terrible egotistical aspect to this whole thing. Beck really can’t wait to hear what you’ve done with those Beck songs. I’m sure he’ll listen and humbly state that he would never in a million years thought of arranging his songs that way. Well done, anonymous musician. Beck is pleased. Wouldn’t it be better to have people write their own songs? I don’t understand what’s inherently exciting about people recording Beck songs. If he really meant this as a democratic process then surely he would have released the songs as actual sheet music that was available at a reasonable price. $34 is a lot of money. It’s more than double the price of a new CD and, unlike CDs, a used copy of this book will not decrease in value. You can even pick up a lovely signed copy for $50. Democracy should be cheaper than this.

In truth, Song Reader is nothing but a cleverly marketed product for a particular subset of Western consumers. It is guaranteed to sell out and it hasn’t even been released yet. My anger isn’t just about the fact that Beck is releasing a book of songs instead of an album. It’s also the fact that he’s doing it via McSweeney’s, a company whose philosophy exudes a kind of smug, post-modern sense of elitism. I’m sure Dave Eggers could pen an essay on why he thinks Fifty Shades Of Grey is both underrated and culturally important (thinkers like him train themselves to defend the most culturally abhorred product), but when it comes to the McSweeney’s customer, Eggers knows only a certain kind of artifact will satisfy. Expensive, limited, and decorated with comfort-inducing images and stylistic touches from days gone by, Beck’s Song Reader fits all the criteria. There’s nothing populist or democratic going on. This is just a well-executed marketing campaign.

For Beck fans who can’t read music and/or play an instrument, there’s nothing to be gained from this exercise other than perhaps a feeling that Beck is still relevant culturally. They may seek out cover versions but the whole thing will be a nine-day wonder. For people like me who dislike Beck and his antics, it’s irritating to see him being applauded for indulging in such risk-free exercises. To those who point out that by even talking about Song Reader I’m giving it attention, I would restate that it was guaranteed to sell out from the moment its existence was announced. To the people who say that since it has gotten people talking then it must be good, I’d say find the nearest pen and stick it in your eye. One, it’ll stop you from thinking such idiotic thoughts and two, it’ll give people lots to talk about next time they see you. I’m an optimist at heart though, and as such I always want to take something positive from whatever life throws at me.

In this instance I have found something to be very optimistic about; at least I won’t have to hear Song Reader.

(This article originally appeared on Collapse Board)